APNewsBreak: Document missing in corruption case

AP News
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Posted: Dec 10, 2014 5:42 PM

PHOENIX (AP) — A key document is missing in the corruption case against three former sheriff's office employees accused of helping drug smugglers.

The three former officers for Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio's office are accused of helping smuggle heroin from Mexico into metro Phoenix and launder its illegal proceeds through the bank accounts of two companies. One of the suspects was once a member of Arpaio's elite immigration squad.

The case relied heavily on a wiretap, but a document completed by investigators to secure the court-ordered surveillance has vanished, Herman Alcantar, an attorney for one of the former officers, told The Associated Press. In response, Alcantar has asked a judge to toss key evidence, and prosecutor Lindsey Coates told the defense attorney last month in an email that "the plan is to potentially dismiss this case entirely."

The key suspect, former Deputy Alfredo Aguirre Navarrette, could still face charges of insurance fraud and arson for allegedly causing a fire to a car in 2010.

Another prosecutor who has since been assigned to the case sent a follow-up email saying the search for the records continues and that the disappearance of the document is being taken seriously.

Alcantar, who represents Navarrette, said dismissing the case may seem like a legal technicality, but such documents by law enforcement are necessary to protect the public from abuse.

No explanation has been offered on how the document might have disappeared or who is responsible. The sheriff's office had no immediate comment Wednesday on the possibility of the case being dismissed.

The case has served as an embarrassment to Arpaio's office since the three employees were arrested in 2011. In addition, a judge presiding over an unrelated racial profiling case against the agency has grown increasingly frustrated over what he said were inadequate internal investigations into wrongdoing by the sheriff's immigrant smuggling squad.

Navarrette, a one-time member of the smuggling squad, is accused of driving smuggling vehicles, laundering money and using a police database to pass information along to ring members.

He also was accused of assisting a separate immigrant smuggling group by operating a stash house and transporting immigrants in the country illegally from Arizona to California on at least five occasions. Authorities say Navarrette, while out on bail, was pulled over while driving a suspected immigrant smuggling vehicle. He has been jailed since.

The internal investigation was launched in 2010 after a confidential informant told police that Navarrette was seen snorting cocaine and bragging about his work for the drug ring while at a party.

Former jail officers Marcella Marie Hernandez and Sylvia Rios Najera were accused of helping launder the ring's drug proceeds. Investigators say the Phoenix-based ring was operated by Francisco Arce Torres, who was working with a high-ranking Sinaloa drug cartel figure. Eleven people have already pleaded guilty in the case.

At the time of her arrest, Hernandez was pregnant with Torres' child.

Jerry Cobb, a spokesman for the Maricopa County attorney's office, which is prosecuting the three former sheriff's employees, declined to comment. A message left for Torres' attorney, Jason Squires, wasn't immediately returned Wednesday.